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Stephen Schwartz, 2020
Photograph: Andrew Parsons

Stephen Schwartz: ‘Anything we can do to expand empathy is worth doing’

The legendary songwriter behind ‘Wicked’ has a new show in town – ‘The Prince of Egypt’, his stage adaptation of his own Disney film

Written by
Alice Saville

Stephen Schwartz is one very proud dad. Proud of his musical offspring: as a songwriter he’s helped create mega-hits like Disney movie ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ and West End longrunner ‘Wicked’. And proud of his literal progeny: his son Scott is directing his new show, the stage version of 1998 Dreamworks animation ‘The Prince of Egypt’.

‘As a parent who works in showbiz, you never really want your child to go into it,’ Schwartz senior says. ‘But he’s had a passion for it since he was six years old.’ His working relationship with his son is built on more than nepotism, though. As Schwartz explains, his son’s a seasoned director in his own right. ‘When Disney wanted to do a stage version of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, they said “Listen, we want you to work with Scott on this, would that be difficult for you?”’

Fortunately Schwartzes Jr and Sr get on like a pyramid on fire, because their latest collaboration ‘The Prince of Egypt’ is an epic task, demanding a chariot race and the parting of the Red Sea. Schwartz seems quite taken with the kitsch-free approach of ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’ – ‘It’s so magical!’ – so he’s opting for something similarly stripped-back: ‘No spoilers, but it involves a great deal of choreography.’

As a weighty Biblical story of warring brothers Moses and Ramses, ‘The Prince of Egypt’ didn’t match the box office success of its perkier cartoon contemporaries like ‘The Lion King’. But Schwartz is adamant that it deserves a bigger audience. ‘The themes are very contemporary: minorities struggling against the system in a world that seems to be on shakier ground than we once knew.’ It sounds decidedly more grown-up than other animations-turned-live-musicals, like Disney’s forthcoming ‘Cinderella’. And that’s deliberate. Schwartz uses his family-friendly, fantastical settings to reach at complex, adult themes. ‘So many people have told me “The Prince of Egypt” was their favourite movie as a kid. I’m always surprised. Why? It wasn’t particularly aimed at children.’

Perhaps his songs appeal to kids because they’re both insanely catchy and they glow with his faith in the value of friendship and kindness. ‘Look,’ he says, ‘I don’t think art changes the world, because if it did then we’d live in a better world. But it can change individual people’s point of view, like “Angels in America” did with gay issues.’ He might be writing about a chlorophyll-hued witch in ‘Wicked’, but he reckons that ‘all of us have that lonely green girl inside us, so we can empathise with her. It’s the same with “The Prince of Egypt”. Ancient Egypt is a metaphor, we can see ourselves and our world in it.’ And that’s the germ of seriousness underneath his shows about warring witches, medieval peasants and Biblical brothers: ‘People today seem to be less and less willing to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, so anything we can do to expand empathy is worth doing’.

‘The Prince of Egypt’ is at the Dominion Theatre. Until Sep 12.

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